Moving Toward a Sustainable and Regenerative Supply Chain: “Just do something!”

 SHP’s Director Ann Armbrecht, PhD interviews herb industry veteran Josef Brinckmann

Josef Brinckmann (left) meeting with staff from Runo, a producer group from Poland, at BioFach, Germany.

Josef Brinckmann has extensive experience of 40 years in the herb, tea, and medicinal plant industry and extended community, with work in research and development and developing sustainable supply chains, and as the translator and editor of a respected botanical reference book.

People at herb companies often ask him what they can do to build sustainable and regenerative supply chains. “I’m a small herb company with a limited budget,” they say, “but I care about where we are sourcing the plants we use in our products and I’m concerned about the state of the world. What can I do?”

“Just do something!” he tells them. “Just DO,” he says, emphasizing the ‘do’. “Be curious. Pick a plant.”

I’ve quoted Josef’s advice but I realized I didn’t really know what to do after picking the plant. So I asked him. He outlined five steps. He called them easy. I’m not sure they are easy but they do seem clear. Either way, at the end of our conversation Josef said, “The thing is, if you’re curious, you’re not worried about easy.”

Here are his five steps:

  1. Prioritize

First, determine which plants are most important to your company? “It might be difficult to determine,” Josef said. “People have different criteria. What’s the most important to your company? ‘Well, how do I answer that? They’re all important,’ ” he said, answering his own question. He outlined some ways to define what is important:

“How much do you spend annually on different plants? How much volume do you use? Where are the plants from? Which have the greatest risk – geopolitical (border disputes, revolutions, sanctions, terrorist organizations, wars), environmental (anthropogenic pollution, climate change, rapid loss of biodiversity), social (rural poverty, rural-urban migration), economic? Which plants are high volume low cost? Which are high cost and low volume? How many finished products are you planning to produce in which this herb is an ingredient? Is a plant endangered or threatened or on any national or regional ‘red lists’ (red lists provide conservation status of species)? A company can’t afford to go everywhere, so prioritize which plants have the greatest value to your brand and the greatest risks and narrow it down to the ones that are most important to prioritize for action.

  1. Pick a Plant

“Make a commitment to a particular plant. Adopt a plant with American Botanical Council (ABC Adopt-An-Herb program) and United Plant Savers (UpS Adopt-a-Plant program) to support their efforts. But adopt it yourselves as well. Commit to getting to know that plant. Really get inside it. Find out everything you can about it. Is it a tree bark? A root? Aerial parts? Where does it come from? Maybe it comes from Appalachia. Then you find out how you get it. What is the history of your company’s use of that plant? Is it mostly wild harvested or cultivated, field crop or agroforestry crop? What regions of the world is it sourced from? Are there common adulterants to watch out for?”

As Josef said, “If you’re making money off that plant, don’t you think you should have a subject matter expert in your organization? Shouldn’t anybody in the company be able to answer the simple question, ‘Why is this plant important to us?’ From where do we get it? What about the lives of the people who pick, grow, and/or process that plant at origin and also down the value chain? What are we doing to protect that plant?”

Pick a Plant – Now What? Five (easy) Steps for Herb Companies

Josef meeting with wild schisandra collectors from Daping Village, one of the villages that have membership in the Pingwu Shuijing TCM Cooperative that is supplying schisandra berries under the Giant Panda Friendly Products Standard.

  1. Go to the Source

Josef continued: “Visit the plant at its source, at harvest time. If your company buys herbs from suppliers rather than directly from producers, and you don’t presently carry out site visits, pick one of your most important plants and plan a joint site-visit with your supplier partner. See how the plant grows. What is the ecosystem? Who are the people involved in growing, harvesting, and processing? What are their lives like? What are the conditions of the region and country? What are the challenges they face? Look around and see what needs to be done. I guarantee that when you get there and look around, you’ll figure out something needs to be done for them directly and/or for their surrounding environment. And then start doing it at whatever level you can afford. Even Fairtrade- or FairWild– certified operations need additional support beyond the long-term equitable trade agreements.”

“Unless you visit, you don’t know things,” he continued. “Until we started doing site visits, we didn’t know to be concerned about succession planning in rural economies. But once we [herb tea company Traditional Medicinals] got there, we found many companies run by folks who are elderly with no one in line to take over the business in ten years. Your botanical supply chain risk and threat assessment should take that into consideration, among many other issues.”

  1. Just Try It

“Once you find out what needs to be done, convince the decision makers in your company to support those mutually beneficial supply chain investments. Initially it could be helping a good producer to transition from conventional to certified organic farming. Or further value-adding by helping producers to implement economic and social sustainability standards such as Fairtrade, Fair for Life, or FairWild, depending on which is best suited to the operation, the region, and whether a farmed crop or wild crop.

Just try it,” Josef said. “There is so much to gain and little to lose by getting to know and trust everyone in your value chain.

“Yes, you need people, you need a budget, you need some time,” he said. “And you need collaboration. Rural and remote economies that depend, in part, on income from the medicinal plants trade can’t be solely reliant on herb companies, or NGOs, or policy makers. Collaboration is needed to support rural economy resilience and sustainable resource management.”

“Companies need to encourage and empower a champion inside of a company to keep pushing on these things to keep bringing these issues to the forefront. Otherwise everyone is just too busy. People will say, let’s propose it for next year’s budget. We’ll look at it in nine months. And then another year has passed. You have to keep things alive.”

Pick a Plant – Now What? Five (easy) Steps for Herb Companies

Josef meeting with wild schisandra collectors from Daping Village, China.

  1. Tell Stories

“Tell others about what you have done. Sharing authentic stories about positive changes in sourcing medicinal plants inspires others to make changes as well. Talk about what you have learned about that particular plant. Describe the communities where it is sourced. Write about how this experience is leading to other changes in your company. Use this one example of making a change to create momentum within your company and in the industry as a whole.”

Read about Josef’s work developing a sustainable source of schisandra berries.